In a heartfelt plea for unity, the World Health Organisation’s chief sought on Wednesday to rise above sharp criticism and threats of funding cuts from US President Donald Trump over the agency’s response to the coronavirus outbreak.
The vocal defence from the WHO director-general came a day after Mr Trump blasted the UN agency for being “China-centric” and alleging that it had “criticised” his ban of travel from China as the Covid-19 outbreak was spreading from the city of Wuhan.
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, an Ethiopian and the WHO’s first African leader, projected humility and minimised his personal role while decrying invective and even racist slurs against him amid the organisation’s response to the disease. The new coronavirus has infected more than 1.4 million people and cost 83,000 lives around the world.
“Why would I care about being attacked when people are dying?” he said. “I know that I am just an individual. Tedros is just a dot in the whole universe.”
He dodged questions about Mr Trump’s comments, while acknowledging the agency was made up of humans “who make mistakes,” and insisted his key focus was saving lives, not getting caught up in politics.
“No need to use Covid to score political points. You have many other ways to prove yourself,” Mr Tedros said. “If you don’t want many more body bags, then you refrain from politicising it.”
Avoiding any direct mention of Mr Trump, Mr Tedros’ comments testified to the often-delicate task faced by UN leaders when criticised by member states. That challenge is especially difficult with the US, the biggest donor to the world body and its offshoots.
WHO Europe regional director Hans Kluge said that with the pandemic at an acute stage, “This is not the time to cut back on funding.”
At the White House on Tuesday, Mr Trump first said the US would “put a hold” on WHO funding, and then revised that to say, “We will look at ending funding.” He took aim at its alleged criticism of the US ban on travel to and from China.
“The WHO … receives vast amounts of money from the United States,” Mr Trump said. “And they actually criticised and disagreed with my travel ban at the time I did it. And they were wrong. They’ve been wrong about a lot of things.”
Generally, the WHO has been careful not to criticise countries on their national polices, and it was not immediately clear what specific criticism Mr Trump was alluding to.
Mr Trump’s remarks came as many governments, particularly in Europe, have started to brush aside, ignore and criticise WHO recommendations on issues of public policy, like whether travel restrictions are warranted or whether the public should wear masks.
In guidance that dates to February 29, the WHO advises against travel or trade restrictions with regard to countries facing the outbreak — now nearly every country in the world — arguing the measures could divert resources, prevent the delivery of aid and hurt economies.
The US contributed nearly US$900 million to WHO’s budget for 2018-2019, according to information on the agency’s website. That represents one-fifth of its total $4.4 billion budget for those years. The US gave nearly three-fourths of the funds in “specified voluntary contributions” and the rest in “assessed” funding as part of Washington’s commitment to UN institutions.
A more detailed WHO budget document provided by the US mission in Geneva showed the US provided $452 million in 2019, including nearly $119 million in assessed funding. In its most recent budget proposal from February, the Trump administration called for slashing the US assessed funding contribution to the WHO to $57.9 million.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reiterated later on Wednesday that the US was reevaluating its WHO funding , saying that “It hasn’t accomplished what it was intended to deliver”.
At the same White House briefing, Mr Trump laid more criticism on the WHO, saying other countries gave substantially less than the US, singling out China. “That’s not good. Not fair, not fair at all,” he said.
Mr Trump said the WHO “got it wrong” in response to the coronavirus. “They also minimised the threat very strongly,” he said.
Some world leaders and UN officials rallied around Mr Tedros and the agency, insisting a worldwide public health crisis was no time to reduce the budget of the entity working to coordinate an often-disjointed international response.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said the WHO “is absolutely critical to the world’s efforts to win the war against COVID-19” and must be supported.
Once the pandemic ends, he said, there must be an investigation into how it emerged and spread so quickly as well as into the reactions of all those involved in the crisis so lessons can be learned.
The chairman of the African Union’s commission, Moussa Faki Mahamat, wrote on Twitter: “Surprised to learn of a campaign by the US govt against WHO’s global leadership. The African Union fully supports WHO and Dr. Tedros”.
In a video conference on Wednesday with Mr Tedros, French President Emmanuel Macron reaffirmed “his belief that the WHO is key to respond to the crisis,” in reference to Mr Trump’s comments, Mr Macron’s office said.
Some US lawmakers piled in alongside Mr Trump, with Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida calling for Mr Tedros to resign.
“Unfortunately, it has been politicised,” he said of the WHO on Fox News. “I have deep concerns about it.”